I flipped the page on The Mister’s Northern Woodlands day calendar one-day last month and found myself staring at a diagnosis for my condition. It turns out I’m part chipmunk.
“Chipmunks will store as much food as they can, sometimes much more than they could possibly use. They don’t have a stop button.”
Right at that instant, everything clicked. I realized why I had been running myself ragged for weeks, slaving over a hot canner or blanch pot from what felt like dawn to dusk, filling my two 15-foot freezers to capacity, rearranging the shelves in my can room to make room for just a few more batches, feeling a sense of loss upon discovering of a too-soft tomato or a gone-by cucumber, and being driven to use up every last pound of the four bushels of green tomatoes harvested before the first heavy frost.
I don’t have a stop button.
Okay, I know. My obsession with making use out of every last morsel of food borders on ridiculous. But I just hate the thought of just tossing food into the compost heap—food which I worked really hard to grow. The sight of bushel-baskets piled high with eggplants and rows of winter squashes field-curing in the sun seems to set off some kind of chemical reaction in my brain—or maybe in my heart—that renders me unable to bear the possibility of any of it going to waste.
Oh sure, I could give some away. And the truth is, I give plenty away. Sometimes friends and family lend a hand with gardening tasks or volunteer for a day of farm-sitting in exchange for a share of my garden bounty, and other times I trade some of my garden overflow for the overabundance of other people’s gardens. But mostly, it’s free for the taking when I have more than I can use.
The sticking point here is the phrase “more than I can use.” While normal people might can a couple dozen jars of tomatoes, make up a batch of their favorite strawberry jam and another of Aunt Hilda’s best dill pickles, spend a few evenings freezing snap beans and broccoli, and call it good for the season, that isn’t how I roll. Instead, I endeavor to keep it all. After doing the basics, I search the index pages of my preserving books—my go-to Ball book first and then my trusty So Easy to Preserve—in hopes of turning up new and creative ways to use up my harvest. So after all the tomatoes I need for casseroles and stews are canned, and all the seasoned varieties of red sauce are lined up in my pantry, and tomato chutney is jarred up and ready to spread on sandwiches and roasts, and green tomato relish is sitting prettily in its mix of red cabbage, pickled grape tomatoes are looking festive with their sprigs of rosemary, and double batches of ketchup and barbeque used up almost all of my half-pint canning jars, I arrive at a point where most people might say uncle.
But not those of us with chipmunk in our blood. Because, of course, there’s soup. Visions of sitting in front of a toasty wood stove while the winter howls outside the windows in January, sipping smugly on a bowl of home-canned tomato soup, are just too seductive to ignore. So I tried my hand at a new recipe for vine-fresh tomato soup. Then I moved on to try a different tomato soup recipe. After this spiced tomato soup, I declared, I would be done with tomatoes. But The Mister and I liked the first recipe better, so I was compelled to do just one more batch. This is it, I promised myself. THE. END.
But wait…those green tomatoes have mostly ripened, so I guessed I could do just oooone more batch.
I had to rearrange my can room shelves when I put the last of the canned soup away. I carved out a spot for applesauce that I knew I wanted to make with the bounty of fruit that had been ripening while I was drowning under a sea of tomatoes, and made myself pinky-swear to reserve the space for applesauce. So even though there appeared to be more room for tomato products, there wasn’t! So stop already!
And the freezer? Forgeddaboudit. The fifteen-cubic-foot freezer that was empty in May, is packed to the gills with this year’s produce. And the other freezer is full too, partly with meats and homemade cheeses and extra bags of ice for blanching and miscellaneous freezer items, and partly with the overflow from this year’s chipmunking. Zucchini bread. Eggplant pizza sauce. Fresh peach pie.
The thing is, in my lifestyle, food is currency. And just like people who get a bonus in their paycheck would be unlikely to spend only what they need right now and donate the rest, I am determined to use up every ounce of home-raised food that I can. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. Placing a high value on healthful whole local foods is potentially beneficial to people as well as the planet.
To be honest, this was the year I had pledged to preserve less food. To just eat what I could, put up a few of my most favorite products that I could not face the prospect of winter without and be done. Maybe even cut myself back to one freezer. I don’t know what happened. I guess if I had to place the blame on something, it would be that bumper crop of tomatoes this year. Or maybe it was all those cannellini beans…
Then again, maybe it is time to face reality. Down deep, under my gardening gloves and tomato-stained apron and canning tongs and spice bags and headspace tools, the evidence is unmistakable. Somewhere along the path to homesteading and self-sufficiency, my DNA must have gotten a little sidetracked and fell down into a chipmunk burrow. And when it emerged, I was missing my stop button.